Is a social media-fuelled uprising the worst case scenario? Elements for a sociology of UK riots

By Antonio A. Casilli & Paola Tubaro. French version provided by

“It's time we heard a little bit less about the economic and sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality”. (Boris Johnson, public speech London, Aug 9, 2011)

“We are not social scientists. We have to deal with urgent situations” (Paul McKeever, Police Federation Chairman, SkyNews Aug 11, 2011)

“Nowadays sabotaging the social machine involves reappropriating and reinventing the ways of interrupting its networks”. (The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 112)

This is the first of a series of joint posts of Bodyspacesociety + Paola Tubaro’s Blog. You are kindly invited to visit both websites, featuring plenty of interesting stuff.

Why social media bring democracy to developing countries and anarchy to rich ones?

O sublime hypocrisy of European mainstream media! The same technologies that a few months ago were glorified for single-handedly bringing down dictators during the Arab Spring, are now at the core of an unprecedented moral panic for their alleged role in fuelling UK August 2011 riots. In a recent post, Christian Fuchs rightly maintains:

And, o! exquisite refinement in the ancient art of double standard: the same conservative press that indignantly deplored dictators’ censorship of online communication, now call for plain suppression of entire telecommunication networks – as unashamedly exemplified by this piece in the Daily Mail.

Fact is, moral panic about social media is the specular reflection of the acritical enthusiasm about these very same technologies. They both spring from the same technological determinism that acclaims new gimmicks and buzzwords to smooth away the economic and social roots of unrest.
Having said that, what can we, as social scientists, say about the role of social media in assisting or even encouraging widespread political conflict? Very little indeed, insofar as we do not have data on actual social media use and traffic during riots. It would take months to gather that data – and who can wait for so long in a media environment that spits out “quick and dirty” analyses by the hour?